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26 January 2022updated 27 Jan 2022 5:14pm

“Deplorable things have happened”: inside Britain’s Second World War internment camps

Thousands of Germans were interned on the Isle of Man during the war – including the New Statesman’s chess setter.

By Simon Parkin

Heinrich Fraenkel had an unlikely problem. A German citizen interned on the Isle of Man in 1940, the Hollywood screenwriter and New Statesman chess setter needed to smuggle out the manuscript of his new book Help Us Germans Defeat the Nazis!, a manifesto for confronting Hitler’s regime. While the commandant of Hutchinson camp, one of ten such camps on the island, had been supportive – providing a private room, typewriter and a stack of ink carbons, as well as excusing him from roll-calls and curfews – Fraenkel feared his book would stall on the censor’s desk if it travelled via official channels. If it did, he wrote at the time, it would be “out of date before it ever reached the printer”.

Hutchinson camp was then home to more than a thousand Germans and Austrians, mostly Jews who had, like Fraenkel, escaped Europe and found refuge in Britain. But when war broke out, fearing that the Nazis had planted spies, their saviours turned against them. In the summer of 1940, the police arrested close to 30,000 people, some of whom had travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport. Innocent asylum seekers were labelled “enemy aliens”. One refugee recorded that, as he disembarked the ferry from Liverpool on to the Isle of Man, he heard a British officer say, in a puzzled voice: “I never knew so many Jews were Nazis.” For those who had survived Dachau and Buchenwald, it was a befuddling injustice.

Hutchinson was filled with distinguished academics who had been ousted by the Nazis, along with Jewish writers, musicians, lawyers and artists whose work had been dismissed as “degenerate”. Together these men represented one of history’s unlikeliest and most extraordinary prison populations – and, for the anxious Fraenkel, they represented an opportunity. Working with trusted friends, he produced six or seven copies of his book on extremely thin paper. He then bought a pair of tall vases from one of the camp’s potters, planning to send them as a gift to the secretary of Victor Gollancz, his London publisher, with the rolled-up manuscripts concealed inside. A conspirator who worked in the camp’s post office slipped the copies into each vase after it had been inspected for contraband by the British officer in charge.

It was not the first time that Fraenkel – who began contributing to the New Statesman using the pseudonym “Assiac” (Caïssa, the goddess of chess, spelled backward) after fleeing Germany in 1933 – had been interned on the Isle of Man. He was 17 and on holiday in Britain when the First World War broke out; along with 29,000 others, he was arrested and sent to the island. While Fraenkel had learned to speak English there, and honed his chess, that internment was a costly disaster for the government. In the winter of 1914, tents blew away, huts rotted and living quarters became flooded, compounding the misery of thousands. When internees at Douglas camp – one of two camps on the island at the time – staged a protest on 19 November 1914, British soldiers fired indiscriminately into the packed dining hall and killed six men. The government had vowed never to repeat the internment policy; but two decades later, the camps returned to the island – and Fraenkel with them.

[See also: The liberal platitudes of Michael Ignatieff]

This time the internees were placed in requisitioned boarding houses, fenced off with barbed wire. The men worked to turn the camp into a cultural centre, producing art, staging live performances, and hosting hundreds of lectures for other internees. Campaigners such as the MP Eleanor Rathbone and the Quaker Bertha Bracey, chair of the Central Department for Interned Refugees, helped source books for a library (escapist fantasy proved popular, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Rebecca the most borrowed titles), a table tennis table, and, in time, a shop where they could even buy alcohol.

Their captors allowed the internees to establish a hierarchy of governance, a trick the British army had developed to facilitate the smooth colonising of indigenous groups elsewhere. Still, Hutchinson’s commandant, a former advertising executive called Captain Hubert Daniel, was a benevolent overseer, providing materials and studio space for the artists, and even a hired grand piano for an outdoor matinée performance by the musician Marjan Rawicz. The artists established a café, housed in a laundry room extension, with food provided by an interned Austrian pastry chef. With its whitewashed walls and bubbled paint, the venue had none of the atmosphere the men were accustomed to, but provided space for conversation and performances by, among others, the dadaist poet and internee Kurt Schwitters.

Even so, life felt precarious. A rumour spread that Ireland, whose shores could be seen from the camp on a sunny day, had fallen to the Nazis, who were now poised to invade the island. In that event, some planned to cut through the barbed wire and steal a boat; others vowed to fight. Fraenkel wrote that he admitted to friends he had stowed a particularly sharp razor blade in readiness. “Razor blade be damned,” countered an internee who had been tortured by the Gestapo. “If those swine should catch me again, I wouldn’t do their job for them. I would bloody well make ’em spend one of their precious bullets on me.”

[See also: Why Neville Chamberlain will forever be discredited by his policy of appeasement]

In the autumn of 1940, a few weeks after Fraenkel arrived at Hutchinson, the British government released a white paper outlining several categories under which internees could apply for release: those who were too young or too old, too infirm, or who had permits to work in positions of national importance. Artists, writers and musicians were not included. Earlier that month, a leader in the New Statesman had blamed the rashness of the mass internment policy on Winston Churchill. If only the prime minister had given the matter deeper consideration, the magazine’s editor Kingsley Martin argued, he would have “seen the military folly of locking up invaluable allies”. There was a good chance, Fraenkel told his fellow internees, that as both his friend and his editor, Martin would publish a letter of protest and bring their cause to a national readership.

When the agreed-upon draft was completed, Fraenkel read the text to those assembled in the café. “Art cannot live behind barbed wire…” he began. “The sense of grievous injustice done to us, the restlessness caused by living together with thousands of other men… prevent all work and creativity. We came to England because we saw in her the last bulwark, the last hope for democracy in Europe. We are asking our British colleagues and friends and all who are interested in art to help us obtain our freedom again.”

Martin published the letter. A later revision of the white paper allowed artists and musicians to apply for release – but only if they had achieved distinction in their field, a high bar in the circumstances. As Helen Roeder, the secretary of the Artists’ Refugee Committee, put it to her friend Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery: “Do you think [the criteria could] be stretched to include the poor souls who have been too busy being hunted to achieve distinction in the arts?”

Fraenkel left Hutchinson on 15 January 1941, six months after his arrest. When he arrived at the Gollancz offices, he found that his manuscript had made it past the censors, while smuggled copies sent by his co-conspirators continued to arrive, at a rate of two or three per week. The book was slim but popular, its five chapters outlining a history of anti-Nazi sentiment in Germany and a guide to resistance, as well as an epilogue written from Hutchinson: “Many of our men here,” Fraenkel wrote, “[have] a burning desire to… see Nazidom and Fascism smashed and rooted out for ever.” Martin’s support endured; in 1945 he sent the writer to Germany as the New Statesman’s Berlin correspondent.

Those who lacked Fraenkel’s connections had a longer wait for freedom. Few went as far as Tristan Busch, a former internee who in his memoir described the British policy of internment as a “war crime”; but it was a measure that brought anguish to thousands, in some cases to the point of suicide. For one group of internees deported from England, the policy proved fatal. Six hundred and fifty men drowned when the SS Arandora Star, a liner carrying internees to Canada, was torpedoed by a U-boat on 2 July 1940.

While many of Hutchinson’s internees felt that they had been safe and fairly treated, and that their treatment could be set in benign contrast to the appalling reality of the Nazi concentration camps, their categorisation as “enemy aliens” had represented a gross moral failing. The British government had invited populist scorn and hatred of those most in need of compassion. Speaking during a heated Commons debate on 22 August 1940, months before most of Hutchinson’s internees were freed, the home secretary John Anderson came nearest to a mea culpa: “Regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” he said – as if the policy had been the result of natural phenomena, and not a series of deliberate choices.

There has been no attempt since to repair the damage done by failing to distinguish between refugees and “enemy aliens” – a dehumanising term that, in 2021, the US government pledged never again to use. In Britain and elsewhere, the notion of the refugee who is not who he or she claims to be has endured, repeatedly co-opted and used to justify institutional cruelty and overreach today.

But throughout his life, Fraenkel felt there had been legitimate grounds for his imprisonment. “I, for one, considered it perfectly justified to lock up 999 innocent and anti Nazi civilians [rather] than run the risk of having one single spy at large,” he wrote. The fact that so many campaigners had taken up their cause, “whatever the pressure of more urgent affairs”, was a source of “abiding admiration”. After reporting from the Nuremberg trials, Fraenkel returned to England in 1949 – “the land where some tolerance is for ever being practised” – setting up home in London and then Essex, for the remainder of his life.

[See also: How we lost the art of getting well]

“The Island of Extraordinary Captives” by Simon Parkin is published by Sceptre on 3 February

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed